Then and Now

1994 (we think)

Dad can’t quite believe it when he sees them.

We are – I think – just walking up the crest of a small hill, on top of a cliff, when he sees them. It’s dusk, and the air is that blue-ish purple it seems only to be in July, during the summer holidays, with my family. The ground is spongy and yields strangely underfoot and Dad reaches out a hand to steady me as I stumble over the sandy grasses.

Well,” Dad says, looking down, to the bottom of the cliff, and then at me. Music is playing, down at ground level, beyond us.

“What?” I say, about nine years old, and unconcerned with my father’s hobbies.

“That,” Dad says, pointing down at the ground as a band strum a song, “is my all-time favourite band. James.”

The air seems to shimmer with the sounds. I’ve never heard music like it. Not boy bands or novelty acts or The Spice Girls, but true, proper music. An acoustic guitar. The beat as the drums kick in; like optimism in music form. The shooting-star twang of that first, clean note of an electric guitar.

“You need to hear Sit Down,” Dad says. “It’s the perfect song.” He has begun teaching me about music, recently. Trying to wean me away from Boyzone and towards Bob Dylan, David Gray, some rap.

The lead singer’s voice fills the summer air around us. It’s pure and loud. Effortless.

We find a wide, flat rock. And, from there, drinking two Cokes amongst the stiff, coastal grasses, totally alone, we watch the most perfect concert, seemingly, just for us.

***

2016 

We almost miss it. My train is late. The motorway is shut. We have had no dinner. Dad’s hands look older, on the steering wheel, as he frustratedly tries to follow my haphazard directions.

But now we are here, in the stalls, drinking cokes. It’s hot, and our coats are on the chairs in front of us. James walk on, Tim Booth wearing wide-leg trousers and a trendy coat with its collar up. “He looks nothing like I thought,” I say.

“Don’t you remember?” Dad says, turning to me in surprise.

“I remember. But he’s different, now,” I say. Dad’s forehead lines catch the spotlights as the auditorium dims around us. They open with a new song, a song I don’t yet know. I lean into the darkness, against my dad. The view isn’t as good this time, but the rest is just the same.

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Due date

“Is it in there?” a friend says to me across a pub table. Well, no, not a pub table. A table in the bar of my father’s squash club, to be precise. We’ve set up a quiz team. We go sometimes on Thursday nights, when we have time. I drink too much Coke and eat cheese-flavoured crisps and put my feet on the radiator and laugh at funny things my friend, my boyfriend, and my father say. I don’t think about foreign tax forms or edits or anything adult at all on these Thursday nights. Not usually, anyway.

“Here it is,” I say, getting my book out. I take it, sometimes, to meet my friends.

I hand it across the table and pass it over. “Your nephew.”

“Nephew?” Dad says, looking at my friend who is holding the book, looking down at it.

“If I had a baby, my friends would be its aunts and uncles,” I say, which seems to make sense to me. My Dad shrugs, smiling. He is always smiling, these days. Since I sold my book.

“Look at it,” my friend says. “Mate, this is real.”

We look at my book on the table, saying nothing, until one of my Dad’s friends ambles over. “What’s this?” he says, nudging my book along the table.

“That would be my daughter’s book,” my Dad says, visibly puffing up. “Everything But The Truth.”

Dad’s friend picks up the book and looks at me. “Yours?” he says, looking flabbergasted. I nod.

Dad leaps up and points out the quotes on the back of my book. “It is a domestic noir.”

“Is it?” the man says, looking at me.

“Available for pre-order on Amazon,” my friend says. “See for yourself.”

“Thank you, sales and marketing,” I say, looking at the book. I used to wonder how authors whose books were out felt. Did they feel the same about each and every book, I would wonder; like having thousands of children, out in the world, whose form you would recognise in the train station and across the library and in the basement at Waterstones? But now there are already five copies of my book in my house and, tomorrow, after I finish this can of Coke and go home and go to sleep, many, many more books are being printed and sent out into the world. To bloggers and newspapers and authors and – well. The world.

I reach across the table, my fingers inching towards my novel, and I touch its beautiful grey matte cover. These are our last moments together, me and my book, with my close friends and my dad. It is still ours. This amazing thing that happened to us all. This thing we never believed could happen to somebody as ordinary as me.

And tomorrow.

Tomorrow, it becomes everybody else’s, too.

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Cover Story, Part Two, With Cover

I don’t know where the boat scene came from. Like most things, when I am writing, it came from nowhere. Not middle-of-the-night nowhere, awoken with a scene fully-formed in my mind, the kind of inspiration reserved for proper writers, but a glum Tuesday-night nowhere: at my desk, when I’d already been there, trying to write, in silence, for hours.

I had become afraid of writing the chapter; the scene everything in the book had been leading up to. A kind of performance anxiety. I knew it should take place in the swirling, oppressive mists of Oban, where my hero and heroine were temporarily resident, and I knew it should be somewhere isolated, but… where?

And that’s when I wrote the boat scene. There was no romance to it. No Pinterest boards or long walks or lattes in ambient cafes. Not even a herbal tea and a cat for company. My writing is functional. A quiet room. The words. Me, feeling the weight of it, sometimes, on my shoulders, alone. I have a crap chair, and non-ambient lighting. The scenes that work the best arrive on my computer just as torturously as the ones I scrap. I end up with writing I am proud of because I write so very much: it is nonsensical. They arrive out of my fingers, it seems to me, and not my mind, and sometimes they’re good enough and sometimes they’re not. There is no reason to it. There is no process except sitting and typing.

I went downstairs after I had written the boat scene, my boyfriend (and cat) already in bed. I looked out across the dark street as I re-adjusted to normality; a two-up two-down in Birmingham, not a rickety boat in Oban that smelled of old, rotting wood and the salt-blast of the ocean. I drew my cardigan down over my hands, like a child, and boiled the kettle even though it was too late. I had been writing too much, had a couple of mouth ulcers from lack of sleep. I always get them when I’m halfway through a second draft; the furthest across the writing ocean, the furthest away from the shore.

It’s funny how these things come to life so slowly, like a garden bearing fruit in spring, the summer; roses late in the autumn. First the deal; the life-changing contract with my name on it. And then the slow, satisfying drip of the rest. Edits which stitch the book into a tighter shape. Copy edits, and seeing a little of how it will be typeset. Loose page proofs sent romantically in the post that look like a book in the way that you can imagine a pile of autumn leaves once made up a tree.

It was a year after its writing that I first saw the cover. I opened it (as previously written) on a table in rainy Rome. And – oh! – there it was. My boat scene. My characters. My Oban, my setting, right there on the screen in front of me.

It was only weeks later that I remembered the circumstances in which I had written the scene. How desperate I had been to write a good-enough book. How much I wanted it; badly enough to give myself mouth ulcers. I dreamt about it, selling my book. I daydreamed about looking into Waterstones on a dark autumn night and seeing it, catching its eye, on the shelf.

The creation of my boat scene in which my hero and heroine confront my hero’s shady behaviour, his huge and horrible secret, was not how I imagined creativity to be. I did not jot a scene down on a back of a tea-stained envelope. I did not begin with a boat, knowing I had to tell the story involving, eventually, a scene that plays out on a little Scottish rowing boat. No. My creativity is different. It is slow, tedious, hall-walking during which I am only thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, what ifs, will this work if… until. A year later. When I open the cover, bearing the scene I wrote on that dreary Tuesday, a year ago, and there it is: made tangible, a scene I made up entirely.

That is creativity, to me. Worth every mundane minute.

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Cover Story

“I need a coffee,” I whinge in Rome. It is our first full day here. We’ve spent two days in Verona, and two days in Florence, and we are fast-approaching very tired indeed. We got up too late to catch the hotel breakfast (a speciality of ours; we always exchange a wry glance when the receptionist tells us the breakfast time – if she says ‘seven until nine thirty,’ we look at each other, like, ‘shame’).

We walk to the Trevi fountains, which are heaving, and now we can’t get out, can’t seem to find a quiet side street in which to eat yet another pizza.

“Here’s fine,” Dave says, touching my hand lightly as we arrive at a small piazza. It’s slightly grimy, and overlooks a kind of car park where vespas keep revving their engines, but we sit gratefully under the awning anyway.

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It starts to rain after a few minutes and I order a latte to have before my lunch, which always surprises the Italian waiters. “Prima, prima,” I say, and the shrug, like, “fine, but that’s incorrect.”

The coffees arrive, and that’s when it happens. I unthinkingly push my latte away, glass burning my fingertips, the caffeine headache gone.

It’s an email. From my editor. The subject is: Jacket For EVERYTHING BUT THE TRUTH.

“Oh my God,” I say, one eye on my email.

Dave, used to my histrionics, merely says, “good coffee?” with a raise of his eyebrow.

I push the phone towards him. “The cover for my book is on that email,” I say, looking it at it like it is a tarantula just descended onto the table top.

“Oh. Oh,” Dave says. He lowers his spoon and picks up my phone. “Can I open it?” he says. He knows my passcode, has one of his fingerprints programmed in, and yet he knows, in this instance, in the moment I am about to meet my book, to ask. I nod.

He swipes, and I see his eyes moving across the screen, reading the email. The rain gets heavier, tapping out a rhythm on the awning above us, and I shiver even though it isn’t cold. Dave’s eyes meet mine. They look so blue in the stormy weather. “I’ve clicked the thumbnail,” he says.

He sets the phone down on the table between us, like it is a baby monitor we have been told to watch constantly, and we wait.

Photo not loaded, Gmail says.

“Oh God, it’s my data. It’s been rubbish here,” I say.

“Don’t I know it,” Dave says wryly.

He taps it again, but it doesn’t show. My book is a blue question mark on a white background. “Very minimalist,” Dave says. “Intriguing.”

I consider asking the moody waiter for the wifi password, but I’m not that person, let’s face it, and so I click again, waiting it out.

“I’m not moving until I’ve seen it,” I say. My coffee sits, untouched, on the table. Dave sighs, but gives me a small smile: he is used to this sort of behaviour from me.

We move my phone. Refresh the app. Close and re-open the email. Eventually, something works.

Photo loading, it says. And then that disappears and there it is. The first strip.

“Oh!” I say, as it loads.

“That’s your name! It’s your name!” Dave says.

We watch it load, on the insanely slow Italian data, strip by tiny strip, cheering and commenting as each part loads, our coffees growing cold, while the waiters look on like we are mad.

When the last line has loaded, when the little Penguin logo is complete, I sit back, exhausted, like I have been exercising vigorously. I screenshot it and save it, so I do not have to go through the torture of watching it load again.

“Well?” Dave says, looking at me, his blond eyebrows raised.

“I think it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” I say, stroking the screen with my fingertip. “Hello Everything But The Truth, it’s nice to meet you.” And then I cry, and we drink our cold coffees, and, for the rest of the day, around Rome, I look at it only about forty-thousand times.

To be continued…

Clockwork

Edits. Edits round two. Edits round three. Soon, the copy edits. Then page proofs. Acknowledgements. The final brush-strokes on my book. In a couple of weeks, the first proofs are being printed. Some authors have already had electronic proofs. Slowly, like a chrysalis, my book is emerging, blinking, into the world.

But where am I? Well, here, in my living room, held in abeyance. Waiting.

Everything but the Truth began its life in August 2014, just a few feet from where I’m sitting now, on a gloomy Saturday evening. It was stormy, outside, and I’d lit so many candles they’d made the cat sneeze and so we were blowing them out. And there it came, my idea, like clockwork as the nights begin to darken and the last Bank Holiday approaches: what if . . . 

I wrote the first draft by Christmas, delivering it to myself (I am very good at self-imposed deadlines) on Christmas Eve, heading out for non-alcoholic mulled wine and finding it hard to believe, as I looked out across the German Christmas market, that my book was done.

I spent much of the evenings that next year re-writing another book. It was good training, in hindsight, for now. An author friend recently said to me that this is the way of it: draft one, edit one, promote one. Like a steady, plate-spinning rhythm. Friday evening, edits come in. Put aside book two. Pick up book one. Who are these people again? Oh yes. Like having dinner with old friends.

I re-wrote it, as I often do, in September and October 2015. And then, like a painting that looks awful until the shadows are added, the light here and there, I knew it was done. Ready.

That’s just beginning to happen with my current book. It’s my favourite phase. If I were a mother, I would liken it to aged almost-one, when everything is changing and the baby goes from sitting to standing to walking in only a few short weeks. I sit back and look at it, my year’s work. It’s not perfect yet, but I can see how it will be. The final aspects of it are falling into place. It’s got a name (I always name late, like a couple rushing into the registry office on the last possible day). It’s got characters I could pick out of a crowd, know them if I bumped into them in Starbucks. It’s nice, this becoming of my book. And soon this one will be delivered, and this one will be the one I come back to as I set aside the third one. The one I had my idea for last weekend, during the Bank Holiday washout.